For his first novel, TVNZ US correspondent Tim Wilson didn’t exactly make it easy for himself. Their Faces Were Shining is narrated in the first person (tricky enough), in the voice of a woman (trickier still for a male writer). The woman, Hope Paterson, is the middle-aged mother of a teenage daughter and dead son, lives in the American Midwest, and is deeply involved in the Presbyterian Church. Oh yeah, and for good measure the novel is set against a backdrop of the Rapture. You know, the Rapture: when Christians – the dead beneath the ground as well as the living above it – ascend to heaven, leaving the Godless behind to deal with the ensuing famine, plague and pestilence.
“There is a lot going on,” says Wilson, on the phone from his apartment in Spanish Harlem, New York, “but I wanted there to be a lot going on.
“I wrote numerous short stories as an apprenticeship for the novel, and some of those were from the first-person point of view of women. I think women are more interesting to write from the point of view of than men sometimes, because they seem to notice more. And they operate on more levels. With men, it’s just meat and war, meat and war. Women are more nuanced, somehow.
“I had the idea of doing something about the Rapture because it’s such a broad canvas. Who wouldn’t want to write about the end of the world? And my day job helped because I’ve seen glimpses of the apocalypse and mass hysteria in some of the things I’ve done. Even covering a presidential election with a stadium of 80,000 people all screaming for one person – that’s the time when the established norms are disintegrating in some ways.”
The established norms disintegrate early on in Their Faces Were Shining when, in an impressive feat of imagination on Wilson’s part, the Rapture occurs, and Hope, despite her avowed faith, is left behind with her daughter and absent husband. In the chaos that follows, her “spiritual narcissism” and the fault-lines of her life are laid all too bare.
The novel, which took Wilson seven years to write (“It’s ludicrous. I should have been making viral videos on YouTube”), is a smart literary page-turner that wrong-foots the reader every step of the way: featuring wry comedy but also flashes of unexpected violence; having a high old time satirising America’s response to the Rapture but infused with moral seriousness (“The lesson is how to be on earth”); taking us into the midst of disaster while resisting the lure of the lurid; keeping us guessing about the outcome until the very end.
“That was important. If someone is going to pick up a book and read it, then you want to hold them until – well, in this case, anyway – the absolute last paragraph,” says Wilson. “I love Graham Greene and that sense of moving forward. I feel a lot of literary fiction can be quite static.”
The tone of the novel was important, too, with its shifts from light to dark to light. “There were several versions of the book [over the years], including versions where it was darker. But I had some people who read it saying ‘You’re a reasonably funny sort of guy, why don’t you put some humour into it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, so why don’t I?’ So that leavened it. And I think it actually helped both sides: if you have humour as well as darkness then the darkness seems somehow more tolerable and the humour seems to have more weight. Hopefully, I’ve offered a balanced journey.”
The novel is suffused with the same sense of the sardonic (“Isn’t God a kind of celestial housewife; aren’t we just one of his chores?”) that surfaces in Wilson’s TV reports.
He moved to New York nine years ago, first as a print journalist, before switching to TV, although he remains a freelancer (“If I don’t kill it, I don’t eat it”). He did, however, have a stint back in New Zealand on the TV1 Breakfast sofa last summer, filling in for the then only temporarily absent Paul Henry.
That was “like a holiday job”, says Wilson, although it prompted suggestions he was being groomed as Henry’s successor.
Wilson laughs when I bring up the mixed reception he received (I spare him the crueller remarks of the comment-thread Hooray Henrys).
“Breakfast TV is very intimate. People are accustomed to performing their morning ablutions and walking around looking for a fresh pair of underpants and seeing a particular face on their TV screen and when they see a different face it’s very startling for them. Yeah, I did get mixed reviews. Some people liked me and some people didn’t like me. But that’s telly. You can’t please all the people, so all you can hope to do is just do whatever it is you think you can do, and if people like it so much the better and if they don’t … well, they can’t change channels now, because there’s no Sunrise.”
Is he a candidate for the now permanent vacancy on the Breakfast sofa? “The papers say I am. I’d be a fool to say ‘No thanks’ if it was offered. But there are some really talented people who’ve been identified as possible contenders as well. It’s a question of where they want the show to be, and who would best bring that out.”
Wilson, 44, grew up in Pokeno, New Plymouth and Whanganui. His father was a Presbyterian minister, so the religious aspects of Their Faces Were Shining weren’t such a stretch for him.
“I wanted to present a view of religion that I hadn’t seen rendered in other books. Faith is all kinds of things to all kinds of people, but it’s often seen as a dark forbidding entity in fiction.”
The Rapture, of course, was more of an unknown quantity. “In many ways, it is an unrealistic book: the world ends – well, how do you describe that? But I wanted it to be as felt as possible and I wanted it as well to be sincere. It’s a value that isn’t always praised but I think it’s an important value in fiction. You have to believe the author believes in the characters.”
Wilson believes in his characters but does he, like Hope, believe in God?
“I believe in belief, Guy,” he says, with mock fervour.
Pressed, he stumbles a bit: “Yeah, I believe in God. I had a period in my life when … look, you know, I don’t lead a blameless life, far from it, so … er, you know, I still have to resolve that [chuckles] side of myself. I sort of inherited my parents’ beliefs and I turned away from them, as you do in adolescence and your twenties, and then, I don’t know, at some point you just get sick of thinking about yourself and you start to think about other things.”
Wilson chuckles again. He’s more fluent in a subsequent email: “In the past few months, I’ve started attending the Catholic church near my apartment. I haven’t been received. I don’t take communion. I just go. My taxi would pass there late at night after work, and I’d see homeless people sleeping on the steps. I always wondered what was inside. Well, everything’s inside.
“At about the same time, I was reading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and essays. I don’t want this to sound like some snuffling literary conversion, but an organisation with the breadth of both Evelyn Waugh and Walker Percy – whose The Moviegoer I also read recently – seemed attractive.”
He is, he says, “humbled by the faith of my fellow congregants”.
As for the Rapture: “I don’t know if there’ll be a Rapture or not. If there were, given what I know of myself, it’s unlikely I would make the grade.”
Wilson’s email comes after I have sought clarification of his faith, pointing out that, for those of us of an atheistic bent, the Rapture is no more preposterous a notion than the existence of God.
“I understand that atheism is the only response of a sensible individual,” says Wilson. “But sensible people don’t write novels.”
THEIR FACES WERE SHINING, by Tim Wilson (VUP, $30).